You want me to drive up where?

You want me to drive up where?

We recently returned from a two-week trip out west, and I asked my usual post-vacation question:

Why did our ancestors stop in Illinois again?

It’s not that I don’t love the Midwest.

But whenever we visit coastal beaches, the Blue Ridge Mountains or, this year, the alpine forests and stunning peaks of the Rockies, we get back to our flat homeland and think, “Huh.”Blog Photo

Still, it has its charms, a point hammered home on this trip.

Before this summer, our kids had never been west of Omaha or Kansas City. I still remember the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, when I was 14, on a family road trip to Denver. Hours and hours of flatness through Kansas and eastern Colorado were finally broken by the mountains’ profile creeping above the horizon. It seemed as if we’d never reach them, but when we finally did, I was awed by their majesty.

I was hoping our teens would be similarly impressed.

We spent a few days in Denver first, visiting one of our nieces. At a Colorado Rockies game, I laughed when the crowed cheered wildly at the line, “From the mountains ...” in “God Bless America.” But later I would understand.

People there take ownership of their mountains. Being outdoors, and fit, is a way of life. No one stays in Denver on the weekends, my niece tells me. There’s too much to do, too much beauty to see up the road.

We ventured south from Denver first, to Colorado Springs, where my parents had honeymooned in 1949. We wanted to retrace their steps, as we had done when I was a kid.

We decided to tackle Pike’s Peak Highway, which rises to the top of one of Colorado’s 53 “fourteeners” (mountains topping 14,000 feet).

Let me say first that this road does not fit my central Illinois definition of a highway. The first part consisted of a twisting, winding path through the forest, similar to what we’d seen earlier in the mountains of North Carolina. (This was our summer of twisting, winding drives.)

After a pit stop at a low-altitude visitors’ center, the real fun began. Steep climbs, more twists, major dropoffs if you happened to look down, and quite a few cars in both directions on the narrow lanes. Plus, a thunderstorm was clearly rolling in.

I grew a bit nervous, but we made it to Glen Cove Inn (elev. 11,450 feet), a waystation for travelers to regroup before heading above the treeline.

The drive after that turned more treacherous, with hairpin turns, switchbacks and no trees or guardrails between our car and oblivion. Then I looked up to the top of the peak and saw black thunderclouds.

“Sorry guys,” I said. “I don’t think I can do it.”

We saw plenty of stunning views, and made it above 12,000 feet, but everyone was a bit disappointed.

Still, I knew we’d made the right decision when, on the way down, the good folks at Glen Cove found that our brakes had overheated. Apparently I had ridden the brakes a bit too much. Luckily, I didn’t do any damage. After a 15-minute cooling-off period, we hit the road again and completed our drive down in low gear — in the pouring rain. I was thankful we weren’t standing on top of the mountain or navigating switchbacks at that point.

Safely back down in Colorado Springs, we took a lovely tour of the Broadmoor Hotel and, the next day, the Garden of the Gods. We then headed for Breckenridge, where my husband and I had taken many a ski trip.

It was all interstate driving, but not the interstates we’re used to around here. Long inclines, more twists and turns, and those gut-wrenching signs warning about steep grades and runaway truck ramps — in a driving thunderstorm. As in, you are momentarily blinded by the wake of a passing truck just as you’re speeding downhill around a curve.

I put my new downshifting skills to the test, praying for the blessed relief of mountain tunnels as my husband and I argued over how fast you could really go in third gear.

I slowly began to realize I may be more suited for the flatlands.

When we finally exited the interstate, my knuckles were white, my knees wobbly. My son said, “I’m pretty sure we’d be dead if Dad or I was driving.”

After a lovely time in Breckenridge, we headed back east on I-70 — in the sunshine this time — to Estes Park, Colo., at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park. Our destination? The highest visitors center in North America, of course, at the top of the famous Trail Ridge Road.

Yes, another twisting, winding mountain highway.

I did lots of research this time. Some online reviewers made the drive sound death-defying. But most promised it would be challenging but well worth it — and not as scary as Pike’s Peak Highway (wish I’d read that earlier).Blog Photo

I wavered, but we went. It was absolutely stunning, as promised.

This time, I was ready for the altitude, the drop-offs, the twists and turns. And the road was jammed with cars full of tourists, so how could they all be wrong?

We stopped frequently at the pull-offs, taking in the clean mountain air and breathtaking landscapes. And as we ascended above the treeline, I kept my eyes fixed on the yellow line in the center of the road or on the rocky hill to my right, not the nothingness just inches outside my door.

We made it to the top. Peak after magnificent peak rolled out in front of us, truly a glimpse of heaven.

Finding a parking space at the Alpine Visitors Center was the hardest part.
I didn’t leave before buying a T-shirt saying, “I made it to the top of Rocky Mountain National Park.”Blog Photo

I was feeling some ownership in these mountains now.

As we left Colorado the next morning, I kept looking into the rearview mirror, keeping them in sight as long as possible.

It didn’t help that we had to cross one of the most godforsaken stretches of highway I’ve ever driven, in southeastern Wyoming. Aside from Cheyenne (why is the capital there?), there is nothing but desolate brown landscape for hundreds of miles. We saw more cars at the top of Trail Ridge Road.

We finally reached the lovely black hills of South Dakota, to see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monument. Thankful for the green pines and rock canyons after eastern Wyoming, I didn’t even mind the winding roads this time.

The rest of South Dakota wasn’t nearly as scenic — though the Badlands were truly amazing, in an eerie sort of way — with dry prairie for hundreds of miles at a stretch.

So we felt something like relief when we made it back to the familiar farm fields of Iowa and eastern Nebraska, and eventually central Illinois.

It’s flat here, but at least there’s green outside the window — rows of corn and soybeans, clusters of trees, verdant prairie, civilization every mile or two.

And, as another patriotic song reminds us, the purple mountains’ majesty wouldn’t be nearly as impressive without the fruited plains below.

So, we’ll save those mountains, and the harrowing drives, for our vacations. I still miss the Rockies, but everyday life in Champaign (elev. 764) is just fine.Blog Photo

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Julie Wurth blogs and kids and families and covers higher education for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 351-5226, jwurth@news-gazette.com or Twitter.com/jawurth.

 

Photos:

1. A view of Long's Peak and surrounding mountains from lower Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

2. Tourists enjoy the Rock Cut lookout near the top of Trail Ridge Road.

3. A glacier outside the Alpine Visitors Center on Trail Ridge Road.

4. Another stunning view from Rock Cut lookout.

Julie Wurth/News-Gazette

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